It occurred to me this morning that it was 30 years ago this week.
First weekend in June of '80, I'd moved to an apartment in Evanston so I could be near my girlfriend. She had just graduated from high school, where we'd met, and would be beginning her first semester at Northwestern in the fall. I was 20, she was 18. Wildly in love, well, I was anyway. Seemed like she was at the time too, but history has raised questions about that.
Anyway, it was the first apartment I had rented solo. Lived with my brother for half a year after high school in a nice 2 bedroom place down in Naperville, and then after Bill decided to go get married I took a place with a guy named John Ison up in Elk Grove Village. Hell of a nice guy, and then he went and got engaged too. Had his first daughter 5 months later. When it was time to find my very own apartment, I settled on a 3rd floor studio apartment at the corner of Dempster St and Maple Ave.
A great place.
$268 a month.
One room that served as both living room and bedroom, a side room that could be called a galley kitchen with a cool little set of corner windows looking down at the alley, and a bathroom. Couldn't have been more than 400 square feet. I fucking love that apartment. Built in 1915. Hardwood floors that squeaked, old fashioned claw foot bathtub, no dishwasher, no A/C, no garbage disposal.
When I decided to rent my current apartment, it was because this one is almost exactly like that one, only this one has a bedroom. When I say almost exactly, I mean right down to the tiny white hexagonal bathroom tiles with the occasional cluster of sky blue tiles arranged in a circular pattern. Both of them are the kinds of apartments one either loves, or hates. As soon as I walked in that studio apartment in Evanston, I said I'll take it. Same deal with the Park Ridge place. As soon as I stepped in the door I told my realtor friend "This place had to have been built by the guy who built my Evanston apartment. I'll take it." I love my apartment, and I loved that Evanston joint.
So did Mary. She had a dorm room on campus at NU, which served as a place to store her pillow and blanket. Most everything else found its way to my apartment. She essentially lived with me starting in July, which didn't go over very well with her parents but that's a blog for another day. During June, Mary would drive up with some school stuff bound for her dorm room, and drop most of it at my place. Then she'd spend the weekend, which didn't go over very well with her parents, but that's a blog for another day.
On the third weekend in June, 30 years ago, Mary and I decided to hop in my Toyota Corolla and drive up Sheridan Rd. A few of the more affluent suburbs of Chicago lie along Sheridan as you drive north along Lake Michigan, thus the ..."they're North Shore"... designation when people want an easy way to say "They're rich people who have a kid at Yale and a 2nd house in Aspen." Most of John Hughes' teen angst movies were filmed on the North Shore.
We used to love driving north on Sheridan, through the tunnels formed by the overhanging branches of stately old trees, and marvel at the mansions on the east side. Those were the estates that had 300 foot deep back yards that end with a private beach on the lake.
On that Sunday, we decided to just keep driving north along Lake Michigan. Up into Wisconsin. Let's see how far we can go on this little ribbon of road. There were a few spots where we wound up back on the highway, but then we'd pick up Sheridan again. Through Waukegan and Zion and into Wisconsin. Through Racine and Kenosha and Milwaukee. As the day wore on, Mary and I talked and drove and talked and smoked joints and talked and looked at the rolling green of northern Wisconsin.
Sometime later, after we'd been married for about 6 or 7 years, we stopped having nice long talks. That's not to say we stopped enjoying each others company, but as we spent more and more time together, and then ultimately, all of our free time together, we just weren't as interested in going into long, deep, ideological discussions. Maybe part of falling in love is the desire to connect on that level with someone, and then once you do you feel almost permanently engaged on that level and there just isn't a need to isolate "deep" conversations from the lighter moments. Whatever it was, we eventually stopped having the kinds of chats we'd have on our long drives to nowhere.
But that June, 30 years ago, I was etching those moments into long-term memory. Didn't really know it at the time, but it turns out those conversations, and those drives, are among the happiest memories I carry with me to this day. Instantly recalled in exquisite detail.
Once north of Koehler, the next decent sized town along the western shore of Lake Michigan is Sheboygan. Beyond that, is Manitowoc. As we took in the sights of Manitowoc, the old shipping yards and the Maritime Museum, the place where they made submarines, and the modest sized homes, meticulously maintained with Chevrolets and Ford 150s in the driveways, looking out at the most gorgeous view of Lake Michigan, I mentioned to Mary that 180 miles to the south, people paid a couple of million bucks to look at the lake out their living room windows, but in Manitowoc, Wisconsin a shipyard worker with a wife and 2 kids has the same thing for 125 grand. Wouldn't it be great to live up here and commute down to Chicago for work? Maybe someday.
North of Manitowoc, we came across a lovely little town called Two Rivers. It was getting towards what I considered the halfway point, around 200 miles, which would allow me the same amount of time driving home while still reasonably fresh. And stoned.
As we drove north out of Two Rivers, I was just getting ready to tell Mary we're 180 when I saw a nice looking stretch of road up ahead. A winding sort of deal that started with a revealed sand dune, reminding us that Lake Michigan was just over that hill on our right, and entering an extremely dense forest.
I love forests. Ever since my Boundary Waters trips, and the Canadian fishing trips with my dad. There's just something about being surrounded by trees that makes me feel cozy and plugged into the whole nature thing. The smells are different, the sound of wind is different as it passes through the trees, and the abundance of birds is startling the first few times you go into a deep forest.
Now Entering Point Beach State Forest.
Two miles of meandering along and I saw a sign pointing me to the ranger station. Hung a right, and after a few hundred yards, came upon a little log cabin with a drive-thru window facing my side of the forked road.
"Hi dare. How are ya?"
"Good. What a great place. Is the beach right there?"
"Yah, right through those trees and over a dune."
"How much to drive through and look around?"
"Park closes in a few hours. Campers only after that. You can pay the daily fee and I won't charge you for the permit. If you plan on returning, you need a permit that you put in your car window that grants you access to all of Wisconsin's state parks and forests for one year."
"Did you say camping?"
"Oh yah, we have 121 campsites. 75 of them have electrical hookups, and all of them have cooking grates and picnic tables. Here's a map of the park, the beach is straight ahead, Rawley Point Lighthouse is at the south end. The campground is to the north. Speed limit is 5."
"Thanks Mark. Go Bears."
Made the left, and went north into the campground. 121 campsites nestled in the heart of a red pine forest planted during The Great Depression. Mary and I looked around at the spots cleared in the woods, about half empty. By noon or so on Sunday, most weekenders are packed up and ready to hit the road. By 3 PM, most of them had left Point Beach State Forest.
Along the furthest north stretch of the campground, there are sites dedicated to tent campers only. No RVs. No pop-ups. No Winne-fucking-bagos. Just tents and campfires in the middle of a gorgeous forest. We pulled off onto the driveway of Site 119, and inched about 30 feet along a gravel driveway that led to a small clearing, just big enough for a tent, picnic table, and a couple of chairs to sit by the fire. Totally encircled by red pines except for the driveway opening. Forest so thick you can't see twenty feet into it when the ground stuff is in full green. We looked at each other, and decided that would be a really good place to camp the next time we drove up, and then we took all of our clothes off and crawled around in the sand for about 30 minutes just to be sure.
In the ensuing 10 years, Mary and I went back to Point Beach State Forest at least 15 times, and in the twenty years since we split up, I've gone back another 15 or 20. Took my girlfriend Julieann there a couple of times in the mid-90s, and went alone starting about 15 tears ago. Other women have come and gone, but Juliann was the last girl I ever took to Point Beach. I have yet to see Mary or Juliann in my return trips, but I suspect they still travel there, only now with their families.
I guess it was about 4 or 5 years ago, I started feeling a sort of melancholy when I'd think about camping at Point Beach.
My last time up was in early May of 2005. Froze my ass off. The trees had barely started to bud. I got awakened by something in the middle of the night and stuck my head out of the tent only to see frost covering everything. Frost. Thank god for campfires and Gore-tex.
And then, I stopped going there. All of the sudden, the memories made me feel a weird fucking sadness. I don't know why. The times I spent there with people I love were happy. The times I went there alone didn't cause me to spin into a blue funk. I enjoy solo camping. What the fuck? Why did Point Beach suddenly bum me out? It shouldn't have. And yet, looking back on 25 years of my life, and how that one little spot in the world, that one forest, and Campsite 119, had played such a big role in my life, suddenly made me sad.
No fucking doubt in my mind.
Well, last year I decided to make reservations for this Spring and another res for the 3rd weekend in July. Don't ask me why, but I began feeling that tug again. Point Beach.
So on Saturday, June 5th I packed up my car, closed the shop at 2 and jumped on the Tri-State Tollway. No melancholy. No sadness. I was looking forward to camping again. In order to reserve a site at Point Beach in advance, you have to do so for a minimum of 2 days. I made my res for overnight Saturday and Sunday, and I had to be out by check-out time, 3 PM on Monday. (Low pressure people at Point Beach. If you dawdle until 4, they don't beat you up.) I figured if I got up at 6 on Monday, I could be back at the shop by 9, and not miss Monday at work.
I knew the Blackhawks were playing the Flyers in Game 5 of the Cup Finals Sunday night, so I was glad that they'd lost a couple in Philly. I knew Sunday wouldn't be the last game of the series, so I set my recorder and set off for Wisconsin. I could watch Game 5 Monday night. THAT's how much I wanted to be at Point Beach.
In making my reservations, I noticed that Campsite 119 had moved. Something looked out of place on the campground map online. A new shower and bath building? That wasn't there before. Hey wait a minute, they eliminate 119 and put a building there! I went back to Ohio, but my city was gone. So, I reserved Site 120, which is across the street from where 119 used to be and hoped for the best. They're all nice sites, and from what I could remember, 120 looked really private.
The weather driving up was not what you'd call inviting to soft-core campers. Gray skies, occasional rain, and temps in the low 60s. By the time I passed Milwaukee, I decided that I was pitching my tent no matter the weather.
It started to drizzle steadily around Sheboygan, and by the time I got off at the 2nd Manitowoc exit, it was a steady downpour. In passing through Two Rivers, I stopped at my usual spot, the Pick N Save, to grab some Coleman lantern fuel and a steak. They had steaks, but no lantern fuel.
Oh fuck me. It's 5PM on a Saturday in Wisconsin, and I'm looking at being tentbound with a good Clive Cussler book, but no fucking lantern.
"No Coleman fuel? You used to keep it right there by the paper fireplace logs and BBQ stuff. What the fuck?"
"Yah. The trucking company needs a special license now to transport that stuff, and they don't have that license, so no, we don't have it any more. You could try the Farm and Fleet in Manitowoc."
"It's 5 O'Clock on a Saturday dude."
"Yeah, you might have to wait until tomorrow morning. They are open Sundays."
"No that's no good. You think maybe the Walgreens has it?"
"Worth a try. It's right at the stop and go light at the top of the hill."
"Yep. Know right where it is. Just passed it. Thanks. Go Bears."
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
I don't want to pitch a tent in the rain and then crawl into a dark tent for the night. That sucks monkey ass. That ain't camping, that's enduring.
"Hi Jenny. Do you by any chance have a place for camping and stuff?"
"There's some over here in aisle 5. Here I'll show you."
"That's no problem, I can find it."
"Oh it's not a problem. Happy to help."
"I fucking love you cheeseheads!"
"Thank you Jenny."
Charcoal. Kingsford lighter fluid. Oven mitts. BBQ tongs. Foil pans.
Coleman propane fuel.
Oh get the fuck out of here. My weekend is saved because the Walgreens trucking guy has the license to carry the thing.
I bought two.
By the time I was checked in (log cabin ranger station gone. New welcome center.) and loaded 3 bundles of firewood in the car, I was already a little wet, and tired. I guess part of being 50 is that the miles add up.
Yep. 119 is gone. A big fancy shower and bath building with handicapped entrance ramps. Oh well, I won't have far to walk if I need to read a magazine.
After an hour or so of setting up shop, the fire was going, the wine had been uncorked, my little Grundig was giving me some oldies, and I was thoroughly soaked. It wasn't a pouring rain, but if you stand in a steady drizzle for long enough, you're wet. Shoes, socks, undies, the whole deal.
Changed into some dry clothes, and by dark it was pretty obvious that the rain was here to stay.
Kept a steady fire going, made my steak which I ate from the pan along with a side-order of Lays potato chips and chased it down with a nice Monte Antico Rosso. Until about 10 PM, I sat in my tent listening to the falling rain in the forest, sipping wine, and burping contentedly
Deep Six is a Dirk Pitt novel by Clive Cussler. It starts out like most Pitt adventures, only it's better read in a tent by lantern with a glass of wine and the constant patter of raindrops on the rain fly. A small quantity of marijuana is also recommended.
By morning, everything was soaked. The forest after a steady rain has smells that defy description. The bad part is that after a long rain, things don't dry very quickly in a forest. Every item I had was wet.
Made a decision over breakfast; coffee and the world's greatest wet omelette, that I'd break down the campsite and head home later that day. Staying overnight made no sense. I had to go home and get clean clothes and shit. I was wearing the only semi-dry clothes I had and another day in the steady drizzle would mean I'd be sleeping and then driving home with wet underwear, which I hate.
As it turned out, I headed for home by noon on Sunday. Back in time for a nap and the Hawks game.
360 miles of driving round-trip, 6+ hours on the road, for 16 soggy hours at Point Beach and a night in my tent listening to the rain.
Loved every minute of it.
Going back July 17th, and hopefully this time I'll spend two nights.
It looks a little different now than when Mary and I first pulled off US Rte 42 back in 1980, campsite gone and some modern conveniences added, but it's still a wondrous place. Whatever the hell it was that was depressing me about Point Beach is gone. I'm making my reservations now for next summer.